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Designing Effective Sales Knowledge Transfer Programs

October 28, 2019

Sales reps are a primary point of contact with B2B buyers, but buyers report that reps often lack the knowledge they need

B2B marketers must enable sales reps by providing them with the knowledge they need about markets, buyers, the provider company’s value, the offerings being sold, and the competition. However, B2B organizations frequently transfer knowledge to sales reps using ad hoc approaches that fail to scale or drive the right results. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we describe the shortcomings of flawed approaches to sales knowledge transfer and describe four requirements for better program design and delivery.

Sales Knowledge Transfer Pitfalls

Portfolio marketing and sales enablement leaders must take stock of their current sales knowledge transfer programs and assess whether program weaknesses or performance issues are caused by any of the following pitfalls:

  • Operating under a “not my job” mindset. In companies where deflecting responsibility is common, sales knowledge transfer may be neglected, creating an overreliance on sales managers or already strained enablement resources.
  • Using standard marketing materials. When marketers hand off buyer-facing content such as a brochure, data sheet or white paper to the sales team, they communicate that the material has not been designed with reps’ needs in mind — and that reps need to figure out asset usage on their own.
  • Unintentionally fostering underground content creation approaches. A lack of sales knowledge transfer programs forces reps to fill knowledge gaps on their own. The resulting underground content factories often cause conflicting messages and mixed results with buyers.
  • Performing random acts of content sharing. Marketers may create assets and then simply place them on a shared website in hopes that sales will catch whatever knowledge is buried in the material. These sales materials often lack context and reasons to remember them, as well as a means of measuring rep engagement and impact.

To avoid these pitfalls and create more effective sales knowledge transfer programs, SiriusDecisions recommends focusing on the following four critical attributes that are driven by seller needs.

One: Selling Motion

Sales knowledge transfer programs must be developed around distinct demand types to accommodate the different interactions, messaging and conversations buyers require in each market situation.

  • Definition. A selling motion is what the rep does in response to how the buyer wants to buy from the provider organization. The selling motion informs the rep by mapping what he or she needs to do (i.e. sales process) and how it should be executed (i.e. sales methodology) in the context of the buyer’s journey and resulting interactions.
  • How it affects sales knowledge transfer. Demand type is the market situation that the organization markets to and sells into. Demand type (i.e. new concept, new paradigm or established market) drives a sales rep’s knowledge needs, as buyers have a different set of questions within each demand type. Reps’ knowledge needs and required sales asset types also vary by buying cycle stage.
  • Action items. Identify the top 10 job aids (e.g. sales success stories, competitive comparisons, product/service guides) that different sales roles require for each demand type and the order in which reps commonly need them. For example, sales reps selling into established markets — which are extremely competitive — need success stories (e.g. internal win stories) early in the education phase of the buying decision process to help them get their foot in the door with prospects who fit the right buyer profile. In contrast, with a new paradigm demand type, job aids are crucial late in the selection phase. Reps must convince buyers to take an alternative approach to what they are currently doing, so they find success stories more useful toward the end of the buying cycle, when they must provide proof points and make a business case for buying.

Two: Sales Talent Lifecycle

Sales knowledge transfer programs should align to each rep’s position in the sales talent lifecycle. A new rep in need of foundational concepts requires different knowledge than a tenured rep who is adapting to complex changes in the selling environment.

  • Definition. The sales talent lifecycle includes the rep’s hiring profile, onboarding requirements and ongoing learning needs. Because knowledge requirements are influenced by all of these factors, portfolio marketing and sales enablement must ensure sales knowledge transfer programs accommodate the needs of all reps, from new hires to veterans.
  • How it affects sales knowledge transfer. Regardless of tenure, all sellers struggle to articulate and prove what makes their offering better than a competitor’s and why the customer should care. Reps who have been in their role for less than a year often lack a deep understanding of the buyer’s world and are too intimidated to ask questions during buyer interactions. New reps tend to lack confidence in their ability to have deeper discussions about why a buyer must challenge the status quo. Knowledge transfer supports their understanding of each buyer persona and its needs. Although tenured reps have a better understanding of their buyers, they often struggle to connect their organization’s solutions to buyer challenges, stay informed about product changes, and understand the benefits of the offering from the buyer’s perspective. To keep pace with changing product roadmaps, the top job aids for tenured sellers focus on providing a deeper understanding of offerings.
  • Action items. Identify buyer interaction challenges across the rep lifecycle and classify knowledge components accordingly. Rather than requiring reps to learn every knowledge component upon joining the organization, take a gradual approach and introduce programs in stages. New reps first need to become comfortable and confident in their ability to have a productive conversation with a buyer. Once they have achieved this level of comfort, focus programs on learning about offerings and how to successfully connect those offerings to buyer needs.

Three: Modularity

Sales knowledge is most effective when it is broken into brief modules attached to rep needs. This approach focuses more on visual and kinesthetic learning and less on auditory learning. 

  • Definition. A modular approach to sales knowledge transfer means delivering it in small chunks that are easily consumed by reps.
  • How it affects sales knowledge transfer. SiriusDecisions research shows that younger generations of sales reps are twice as likely as older generations to value just-in-time learning and delivery. However, all reps can benefit from this approach. Our research also shows that reps tend to be visual and kinesthetic learners. They benefit from practicing a sales activity and receiving feedback on how to improve it. With a modular approach, reps are likely to engage, retain the knowledge and opt to refresh it at any point in the buying process.
  • Action items. The 10-minute cognitive limit does not mean that every knowledge transfer session must be limited to this duration. It does mean, however, that after 10 minutes, it’s best to reset reps’ attention by watching a demo or video or listening to a sales story. The strong desire for targeted e-learning from younger generations indicates that portfolio marketers and sales enablement professionals should focus on short-format, easily accessible sessions. Split longer learning sessions into shorter sessions that align to the buying cycle and sales process.

Four: Learning Strategy

Sales knowledge must be tied to how reps will use it. It must be transferred to reps in a way that maximizes their ability to recall and use the information when they need it.

  • Definition. Learning strategy includes telling reps what they need to know, showing what good looks like in application, and allowing reps to practice in a controlled environment where they continue to receive reinforcement. 
  • How it affects sales knowledge transfer. The areas of learning that are the most difficult for most B2B sales organizations to execute are practice and ongoing reinforcement. Data from the 2018 Sales Talent Study revealed that 36 percent of high-performing reps needed and wanted more coaching from their manager. However, these are the reps that managers are most likely to not coach, as they are assumed to be highly competent and confident. Although reps typically are not initially enthusiastic about role-playing, high performers are three times more likely than low performers to see role-play as an effective learning approach.
  • Action items. Determine the right program assets (e.g. video, fact sheet), activities (e.g. role-playing, ride-alongs) and functional owners for each learning phase (tell, show, do, reinforce, own). Establish tight interlock between portfolio marketing, sales enablement and sales leadership to ensure reps move through each phase as seamlessly as possible.

The Sirius Decision

Updating or overhauling a B2B organization’s approach to sales knowledge transfer can require a major shift in priorities and resources. Before developing new programs or revamping existing ones, portfolio marketing and sales enablement leaders should conduct a sales content and training audit and a planning session. The planning session should focus on obtaining buy-in and sponsorship from sales and marketing executives, developing a deep understanding of sales reps’ needs, and identifying the knowledge gaps preventing reps from achieving quota. Completing these preliminary steps ensures more successful program design and, ultimately, better sales rep adoption.

The SiriusDecisions Sales Knowledge Transfer Framework

The SiriusDecisions Sales Knowledge Transfer Framework

<p>Portfolio marketing leaders increase sales of the offering via knowledge transfer, content and programs for sel... Access Now
<p>Portfolio marketing leaders increase sales of the offering via knowledge transfer, content and programs for sellers. The SiriusDecisions Sales Knowledge Transfer Framework enables this by providing a consistent approach to enabling sales with key knowledge components. The framework is organized into five high-level phases, which are further subdivided into a series of key activities, interlocks... Access Now